Behold, the Joshua tree! It grows in only one place: Joshua Tree National Park in California. The park is basically a desert. Bathed in ethereal red light at dawn, it becomes a furnace by noon with temperatures routinely soaring beyond 120 degrees.
So why is the Joshua tree special enough to have a national park named after it? Because it's pretty much the only thing that will grow there. Even though the environment is brutal, this particular tree has somehow found a way to adapt and survive.
It's a little like that for churches on Long Island, New York. The ground is hard and not conducive to church life. People are jaded, and clergy are often treated like snake oil salesmen. In some cases, I have to admit, the attitude is deserved. Some have dubbed Long Island "The Preacher's Graveyard." It's a difficult place to grow a church.
The hard soil, however, is capable of nourishing life. But churches there must do what they have done around the world and throughout history: adapt and learn to thrive in even the most difficult environments.
That's our story at True North Community Church. We opened our doors on Long Island in September 2005. Some seven years later, we're amazed at what God has done. We're running four services each Sunday, and we've had the honor of baptizing hundreds of new believers! While we've been blessed to thrive in a challenging environment, we certainly aren't the only ones. I'm thrilled to see other "Joshua tree" congregations springing from the hard soil of Long Island.
The "planting" analogy is apt. A new church begins as a seed, receives water and nourishment, and for reasons even experts don't fully understand, produces a living thing with the potential to nurture and shelter other life. Although we may not understand the unseen miracle involved in a church's birth, I'm beginning to understand the ways God has enabled our church family to thrive. Here are the lessons I'm learning.
Tend the roots
Plants must develop root systems. So must churches. Tending to the roots is perhaps the most neglected aspect of church planting. Most church planters are great at measuring visible things: attendance, offerings, volunteer sign-ups, baptisms—stuff above the surface. But it's just as important to pay attention to the less visible but still essential aspects of ministry.
These include a church planter's personal and family life. Church planters need to ask: How many Sabbaths have I skipped? How many dinners with my family have I missed? How many times has my spouse been exasperated by the fact that I just can't seem to put down my smart phone? It's easy to overlook such things, but they matter not only for the strength of our personal lives, but ultimately for the church we're helping to plant. We ignore them at our peril.
Our team learned early on that if we didn't establish clear boundaries to protect family life and personal health, the church would swallow every waking minute. We had to acknowledge this is God's initiative, not ours. He can do it without us.
But for the moment, he has given us a part to play in his work. We strive to play that role faithfully and well, but we can't make the mistake of thinking we're indispensible. We need to unplug regularly.
So, we work hard. And we rest hard.
Roots take time to develop. Fostering a vibrant spiritual life, a healthy family, and vital ministry team can take years. Church planters often grow frustrated when they're not seeing huge results right away. Yet that doesn't mean growth isn't happening.